Raising hell between the street and sidewalk


Last week, the New York Times took up a common gardening dilemma—what do do
with the urban/suburban median/easeway/tree lawn/hellstrip, a spot which generally does
not belong to the homeowner, but must be maintained. Writer Michael Tortorello discussed the general conditions to be found here (compacted soil debris, road salt build-up). 

After reading the modest list of plants
suggested—cushion phlox, sea buckthorn, grape hyacinth, and a few tough turf
grasses—I considered what I’ve seen growing out of sidewalk strips on my
street: tall clumps of iris and columbine, gigantic hostas, spirea, cotinus, and
more. In order to avoid the maple roots, I have some circular raised beds that
I fill with tall tropicals and foliage plants. (I have found that many plants
people have trouble keeping alive inside will endure all kinds of difficult
conditions outside in summer.)

 My neighbors clearly have never consulted horticulturalists
about what to grow in this difficult spot. Rather, they chose plants that they
liked and thought would do well. They’re treating the space like another opportunity
rather than a problem, and it’s working out pretty well. I think part of their success has been that they've done what they would do in any garden bed—built up the soil a bit, mulched, and watered. In a street charactered by tall, narrow houses, the verticality of most of the plantings seems to fit. It might not in a different neighborhood. 

(iphone pics)

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. These articles have been timely, as I am waiting for the city to come and grind out the stump they left there two years ago when they cut an ailing horse chestnut tree in my hellstrip. I’ve been plotting and planning what to do, once the stump is gone. I probably have another two years before the stump is gone.

  2. I’m glad they talked to Lauren Springer Ogden about it. She’s leading the vanguard on using plants to resolve problems with difficult landscaping challenges in challenging areas of the country. I posted a vid of her and her husband, Scott Ogden talking about such issues on my blog a few days ago.

  3. My little hellstrip is home to delphiniums. A neighbor gave me a bunch of miserable looking little seedlings about 4 yrs ago. Figuring they would never survive anyway they were relegated to the hinterlands. They are huge, beautiful and flower prolificly, even when they have died early deaths in other, more cared for locations in my yard.

  4. Can’t see how this would work where there is parking along the street. People do get out of their vehicles on the passanger side.

  5. I’m with Tibs. I like a well planted hellstrip, but only if they’re planned to accommodate people getting in and out of their cars. It’s possible to do so.

    We have no curbs on our street and no parking lane. The hell strip is where people park. If I planted mine, it would have to be stuff that tolerates being run over.

  6. I hope people consider visibility when planting “the governor’s acre.” It seems like a smoke bush or delphiniums could obscure pedestrians or animals on the sidewalk from cars pulling in/out. Corner lots need to be especially careful as tall plants can block the view of drivers making turns (and lead to accidents).

    As always, consult your local municipal code before digging or planting. http://municode.com/Library/Library.aspx

  7. Well, I do love my cotinus in the hellstrip, right next to my peonies. But I try to coppice them to get the huge dark foliage that beads up with water, so they shouldn’t (and aren’t, from my parking experience) get too tall. I learned the embarrassing way from a grumpy parker not to bar access to the street-side area of the garden: only the plants I care absolutely least about get put there, and sparsely at that now. And, since 1) I get about six months of the year foliage-free and since 2) five months of that are snow-piled, assuming proper operation of the oh-super-special “German plow” city investments, I’m pretty much feeling guilt free about it!

    I do agree, though, that sight-views and parking neighbors are valid gardening considerations for that evil patch…

  8. I am glad to see that a number of people in a nearby town where ‘hell strips’ exist are making beautiful use of that space with all manner of plants. One of the constraints seems to be whether it is a shady street or a sunny street.

  9. My median/sidewalk space is where I stick all my ‘extras’ – because I”ve learned that any day a truck can pull up and rip it all out – whether cable installers, state highway, water sewage, etc. Then I have to consider the pounds of salt sprayed their each winter so it has to be hardy for that and the errant foot traffic, and yes, people will step on anything, even roses in full bloom. So far my best success is with daylilies.

  10. I wrote an article last summer for Port City Life mag here in Portland, Maine, about exactly this subject and a great neighborhood that has taken up “sidewalk gardening” big time. The plantings varied from annuals that sprouted from strewn seeds to perennials, groundcovers and even small shrubs. In spite of the winter salt and sand, foot and dog traffic these gardens were pretty spectacular – even the ones planted in the lousy “soil” the city puts down. Here are some handy tips from the gardeners: http://www.themainemag.com/archive/126-features-pcl/1037-walk-on-the-flower-side.html

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